What Happens When Both Partners Are From Mars?

Love and laundry.

Posted Apr 27, 2018

“You lost my favorite socks?” “Were you ever going to empty the dishwasher?” “Would it kill you to run the vacuum?” How do these common domestic tasks play out for gay male couples? They are also metaphors, of course. Not so many years ago, the facetious and the curious asked gay couples, “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?” Partners might have even asked themselves. 

Thank heavens, this question is no longer common, but who does the laundry, along with other questions that have traditionally been addressed along gender lines, still loom large. Do partners do their laundry together or separately? It is something that has to be figured out when there is no tradition to set the unspoken rules. (Of course, the age-old assumptions are also falling away among straight couples. Yay!) Anyway, one couple comes to mind immediately as I write this. They are very clear about doing their laundry separately.  It is simple, really: one man is more fastidious than the other. The more exacting of the two men prefers his independence and insists on his own separate laundry time. Imagine that, preference over presumption!

Recently, another couple, Dave and Matt, reported tension regarding dry cleaning of all things.  Matt brings his shirts to the dry cleaners regularly but when Dave asked him to drop off some of his items Matt refused. Was Matt's response a small act of retaliation for a disappointment elsewhere? Did it reflect building resentment over other “favors” requested? Did Matt fear this would become his new job and was simply establishing preemptive boundaries? Was it a matter of not wanting to front the money?  Or were Dave and Matt just so accustomed to living separate lives that their instinct was to maintain separateness even as a couple? 

I recently brought their situation up with a heterosexual couple to get their take. The wife, a successful professional who is just as busy as her husband, said she didn’t understand why this couple couldn’t simply work this stuff out. But after a couple seconds she had an a-ha moment. “I get it. Neither one of you is the wife!” I later shared this insight with the couple and they breathed a big sigh of relief. Could it be that simple? Maybe.

On one hand it is freeing to not be in a relationship with strictly prescribed roles predetermined by tradition, but at the same time it leads to a lot of negotiating about who does what. After all, both partners are from Mars! 

Further, neither partner usually has a role model for emotional sustenance, or certain acts of generosity when it comes to simple tasks and chores. Men are taught to provide, not to do laundry. Yes, it’s an area of mystery for many male couples, and there have been countless discussions in my office!  Cooking, cleaning, making a cup of coffee for the other, changing the sheets…who does it and what does it mean? There is a learning curve. We have to figure it all out — and get over the powerful, deeply entrenched idea that these activities constitute some sort of an assault on masculinity. 

For those who grew up in traditional families where Mom did a lot of these chores, and feel secure enough channeling their mothers in doing the same, life may be a bit easier. But unfortunately some have taken the teachings from childhood to heart and into adulthood about gender and what is okay and not okay for “real men.” 

Those who are more concerned about a traditional mode of masculinity and more constricted in their beliefs or communication styles may be less at ease with the tasks that are the backbone of the everyday. 

Here are some tips I use with couples:

  • Differentiate between independence and generosity. Nurture both elements in the relationship and make room for each man to identify his own preferences.
  • Delineate together which chores will be carried out separately and which will be done together. Emphasize preference over tradition. The second will not answer the question! Stand by your decisions rather than comparing them to those made by other couples. 
  • Find role models that inspire you regardless of gender or living structure. Note how they approach things and enjoy how helpful it feels to have them as guides.
  • Use modern trends of masculinity as your guide. Rather than reflexively sticking to rigid and constricted views, remember that the contemporary view of masculinity is about inclusivity — about fluidity and expansion rather than stagnant rules and limitations.
  • Make a commitment to honestly discuss disappointments in productive ways rather than simply avoiding or getting even. Resentments, even about the laundry, can so often build up and even topple the relationship.
  • Find ways of feeling good about taking care of your spouse in simple ways. It’s important to understand that these seemingly small acts potentiate love, respect, and commitment.
  • Create new rituals that emerge from your unique connection and perspectives. Sometimes this will mean leaving the past behind and sometimes it will entail finding uniques ways to bring it forward. 

Many of the traditional perspectives on how couples live and how they divide their efforts presuppose a view of gender that is not relevant for same-sex couples — and, frankly, can no longer be taken for granted for any couples.  But my personal and professional experience tells me that seemingly trivial disagreements over the chores that are necessary to scaffold daily life are no trivial matter. Not only do the mundane tasks need to be worked out so that resentment doesn’t fester, they actually provide fresh new opportunities for the couple to discover individual preferences and skills.